THE MATAWAN MAN-EATER
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July 12, 1916 began as almost every day that summer had in New
Jersey, hot. No one could remember a summer season so brutal. Day
after day, week after week, the weather forecast was the same, hot
and humid. A day earlier, the oppressive heat had been blamed for one
death in Jersey City, and for numerous bouts of heat exhaustion
throughout the state. In these days before air conditioning, many
plants and businesses were forced to close early. The weather had
even been blamed for an epidemic of polio (then called "infant
paralysis") which had recently spread from New York City to the
urban areas of New Jersey.
By mid-morning the temperature was fast approaching ninety degrees and Captain Thomas Cottrell decided to take a break at his bait and tackle shop near the mouth of the Matawan Creek in Keyport. Trying to catch a cooling breeze from the nearby Raritan Bay, the retired sailor and part-time fisherman made his way out to the center of the new drawbridge that spanned the creek. Suddenly, a large black shadow flashed in the water below and caught his attention. With his years at sea, Captain Cottrell knew immediately what he had seen, but his mind fought with his eyes. What was a large shark doing swimming up the small tidal creek that connected Matawan, just a few miles upstream, to the Raritan Bay?
Captain Cottrell was not the first person to see a shark along the
Jersey coast in the summer of 1916. Sharks were on the minds of most
people that year. The public's fascination and fear of the "sea
tigers" had began two weeks earlier on the first day of July,
sixty miles south of Keyport in a the resort community of Beach Haven.
Charles Van Sant, a 23 year-old vacationer for Philadelphia could not wait to enjoy the refreshing waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The train ride that had brought him and his family to Beach Haven had been much too long and much too hot, and Van Sant had made his way to the beach within an hour of their arrival. He swam out about one hundred yards and then leisurely began to make his way back to shore, occasionally swimming but just as often riding the waves. He was within fifty feet of shore when other bathers in shallower water noticed a large shadow following him. They shouted warnings to him, but he failed to hear them and remained blissfully unaware of the danger until suddenly he felt something grasp his legs. On the shore, Alexander Ott, a former Olympic swimmer, could see Van Sant disappear beneath the surf and a large red stain growing in the water. He dove into the ocean and quickly swam to where he had last seen the injured Van Sant. As he reached the spot, Ott could saw the black body and fin of the attacker in the water nearby. At first it seemed as if was moving towards him, but it veered off and raced out to sea. Ott found the unconscious Van Sant and dragged him to shore, but there was nothing that could be done. His life ebbed away on the beach. Both legs had been severely mangled.
Although the attack on Charles Van Sant was headline news, there was no immediate public panic. The event was looked upon as one of those extremely isolated incidents unlikely to ever occur again. After all, there had never before been a shark attack on a human in New Jersey's waters. In fact, many experts of the time argued that sharks did not attack living people. Sure, they might make a meal of a floating corpse, but any encounter with the living was purely accidental, and the shark would retreat in fear once it realized its mistake.
The Fourth of July holiday crowds descended upon the Jersey shore as they did every year. Maybe some swimmers kept a closer eye on the water after the incident at Beach Haven, but the surf was still filled with vacationers trying to escape the oppressive heat. There were no further shark sightings and a sigh of relief could be heard from the hotel and business owners of the resort communities throughout the State. Then on July 6, Charles Bruder, a 27 year-old bellboy for the Essex and Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake, twenty miles north of Beach Haven, went for a swim on his day off. He was just beyond the lifelines when suddenly he disappeared beneath the waves. A woman on shore pointing to the spot screamed, "The man in the red canoe is upset!" But the red she saw spreading in the water was not a canoe, it was the blood of missing swimmer. The lifeguards arrived at the scene in a rescue boat quickly and could see an arm sticking up out of the water. Bruder's seemed unusually light as they pulled him from the water, and they discovered why when they were able to view what was left of his body below the waist. "A shark got me," were the only words he spoke before he died.
The resort communities held on to the futile hope that perhaps it was not a shark that had attacked the dead bellboy, but the report of the Surgeon General of the New Jersey National Guard, Colonel William Gray Schauffler, dismissed that possibility. "There is not the slightest doubt that a man-eating shark inflicted the injuries," he wrote. Panic now set in with the public, and sharks were spotted everywhere along the Jersey Coast from Cape May to Robbins Reef Yacht Club in Bayonne on the Newark Bay. The race was now on to attempt to salvage at least some of the remaining summer season.
On July 8, Asbury Park became the first resort town to deal with the
public's fear, installing metal nets to
protect bathers and patrolling the waters with motor boats containing
men armed with shotguns. Belmar and Beach Haven did the same the next
day and the remaining vacation communities followed suit as soon as
possible. The director of the Museum of Natural History in New York
City, Dr. Frederick Lucas, disagreed with Colonel Schauffler's
conclusions regarding the death of Charles Bruder, stating, "A
shark's jaw is simply not powerful enough to do that kind of
damage." Other experts agreed, and added that even it had been a
shark, it had long left the area and was far out at sea. With the
metal nets protecting them, and the experts reassuring them, some of
the more courageous returned to the water. Within a few days many
other bathers followed.
JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE TO GO BACK IN THE WATER
The account of these two attacks must have been racing through Captain Cottrell's mind as he stared at the approximately ten-foot shark swimming quickly up the Matawan Creek. He called to two workmen on the bridge, pointing out the shark, then telephoned downtown Keyport to warn the bathers in the Raritan Bay that a shark was in the area. He next followed the creek upstream on foot racing to Matawan to warn the people there. However, many townspeople ignored the warning thinking the Captain had fell victim to the shark hysteria sweeping the State. After all, how could a ten foot shark be in the shallow Matawan Creek, no more than forty feet across at its widest?
About one and half miles upstream from where Captain Cottrell first spotted the shark, Lester Stillwell and four of his friends prepared to go swimming in the creek at the old Wyckoff Dock. Stillwell, only twelve years old, had been given the afternoon off at the Anderson Saw Mill where he worked with his father, because of the almost unbearable heat. If they had heard the shark warnings, they had decided to ignore them just as had most of Matawan. They had been swimming only a short time when one of the boys, Charles Van Brunt, saw a big black fish streak past him towards the floating Stillwell. He could see the white stomach and gleaming teeth as it rolled in the water while closing its jaws around the slim body of Stillwell. Stillwell's scream was cut short as he was dragged below the surface leaving only a spreading red pool in his wake. Van Brunt and the other boys exited the creek as quickly as possible and ran up the steep dirt road to Main Street for help. As the terrified boys related their story to the shocked townspeople, a crowd rushed to the creek to attempt a rescue.
Watson Stanley Fisher heard the news at the dry cleaning and tailor shop he owned and operated nearby. Stanley, as everyone called him, was a popular and respected twenty-four year-old young man. Many in Matawan were surprised when this "gentle giant" (he stood over six feet tall and weighed over two hundred pounds) decided to become a storeowner, rather than follow in his retired ship's captain father's footsteps. Fisher immediately closed the shop and headed for the creek. Meeting up with his friends, George Burlew and Arthur Smith, Fisher took command or the rescue effort on land, while Captain Cottrell, who by now had commandeered a motor boat, directed it from the water. Twenty years later, George Burlew would relate what happened next to the famous journalist and adventurer, Floyd Gibbons:
"We borrowed a couple of pairs of tights and then proceeded to stretch a wire (net) across the creek so the tide wouldn't take the body out. The shark (also) couldn't get out past the wire, but somehow we never thought of that."
For the next half-hour, the trio dove continuously for the victim's body, while others in boats used hooks and poles. Just as Arthur Smith was about to give up search and exit the water, he felt something brush past his body and realized he was bleeding. Suddenly there was an awful scream from the far side of the creek where Fisher had been searching. When they looked, Fisher was gone, but quickly reappeared from below the water. George Burlew continued his story:
"He fought the fish like a madman, striking and kicking it with all his might. Three or four times during the struggle the shark pulled him under, but each time he managed to get back to the surface. He seemed to holding his own, but at best, it was an uneven battle. The shark was at home in the water - and Stanley wasn't."
Finally, Fisher broke free and the man-eater retreated somewhere in the creek. He managed to struggle into waist deep water across from the dock where he started his search. A motor boat quickly reached where he was and dragged him back across the creek. Several women fainted, and many other men and women fought to remain upright as they witnessed the horrible wounds caused by the shark on the lower extremities of Stanley Fisher. From his groin to his to his kneecap, the flesh was missing from his right leg. While a tourniquet was applied to slow the bleeding, a local physician, Dr. Reynolds was sent for. After treating his patient as best he could, the doctor transported him to the Matawan Railroad Station for the trip to Memorial Hospital in Long Branch.
Although Fisher was in agonizing pain, he fought to remain conscience. Dr. Reynolds tried to convince his patient to allow himself to succumb to "blissful sleep," but Fisher wanted to tell his story first. As Dr. Reynolds related to the Newark Evening News the next day:
"He seemed to think it was his duty to recover the body, even though his own life was at stake. Later when I was at his bedside with the surgeons at the hospital he told me he had the body of Lester under his arms when the shark attacked."
Fisher told Reynolds, "I knew it was all up with me when I felt his grip on my thigh. It was an awful feeling. I can't explain it. Anyhow, I did my duty." At 7:30pm, Watson Stanley Fisher's pain was finally over. He died from the loss of blood and shock as he was being wheeled into the operating room.
Having already claimed two victims in less than an hour, the Matawan shark was not yet finished. Shortly after Fisher had been attacked, four teenage boys from Cliffwood, just across the creek from Keyport, were swimming just a half-mile downstream from the Wyckoff Dock. Despite all the activity that had to going on around them, the boys were unaware of the shark presence in the creek. They were in the water about fifteen minutes when someone spotted them and shouted for them to get out of the water. Just as the last and youngest among them, fourteen year-old Joseph Dunn, was hurriedly exiting the water, he felt something grasp his right leg. "I felt my leg going down the shark's throat," he related later. "I believe it would have swallowed me."
Joseph Dunn's older brother Michael and the other boys ran back to the water's edge to help. They clutched the boy's arms and began a terrible tug-of-war with the shark. It cost Joseph some flesh, but eventually the shark released his prey and continued downstream. Three victims in one day seemed to be enough for it. Joseph was rushed by auto to St. Peter's Hospital in New Brunswick. The newspapers reported that although the boy's life would almost definitely be saved, his leg would not. Luckily, Joseph never read the papers. It took a talented surgeon, and two months of recovery, but when he was released from the hospital he walked out unaided and on two legs.